Scammers are using Google results to target desperate travelers

by Сашка

Need to rebook a canceled flight? Beware of ‘malvertising.’

After sitting on the runway for an extended wait, Shmuli Evers’s plane returned to the terminal at John F. Kennedy Airport. The weather earlier this week was too dangerous to fly, so his 7 a.m. flight to Florida would not be taking off. Immediately, the line for Delta’s in-house customer service began to stretch through the airport, filled with passengers from his flight. Evers figured he could avoid the wait by calling Delta’s customer service hotline, so he turned to Google.

He dialed the first phone number the search engine listed. The automated voice at the number Evers called claimed to be a central customer service desk for multiple airlines, although Delta’s name was never explicitly mentioned. That was the first sign something wasn’t right.

Evers had accidentally called a number added to Google by potential scammers in place of the actual Delta customer service number. Like other consumers in recent years, he didn’t know that search results can be manipulated by scammers. It’s called “malvertising.”

Yes, it’s a scam: Simple tips to help you spot online fraud

After many redirections to international numbers, he began speaking with a friendly voice who said he was a Delta representative. The “representative” asked Evers for his name and flight itinerary and said they had canceled his existing flight manually. He then directed Evers to a flight at Newark Liberty International Airport, which he could book for five times the original price of his ticket.

To confirm the ticket, he texted Evers from a different number. Evers became suspicious and asked where the representative was located. When the representative responded that he was two hours south of Manhattan in Rochester — which is actually north of the city, on the shore of Lake Ontario — Evers suspected this was a scam and hung up. The supposed help desk employee was persistent, continuing to send text messages about how hard he had worked to find this flight and how all Evers needed to do was provide his payment information to get to Florida on time.

“I just ignored it from there. Go away,” Evers said. “That’s when … I looked up the number and I realized that Delta was not the only one that had their listing created, most likely, by scammers.”

Evers posted several tweets Sunday morning to relay his experience, and in creating a now-viral thread, published screenshots of Google results that appear to show incorrect phone numbers for several other airlines; Evers found that Southwest Airlines, American Airlines, Air France and more had been affected.

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“We do not tolerate this misleading activity, and are constantly monitoring and evolving our platforms to combat fraud and create a safe environment for users and businesses,” Google said in a statement emailed to The Washington Post. “Our teams have already begun reverting the inaccuracies, suspending the malicious accounts involved, and applying additional protections to prevent further abuse.”

In a Tuesday search that The Post conducted, these numbers had all been replaced with their accurate counterparts listed on the airlines’ websites. However, while searching for “Delta Air Lines” using the Safari app, The Post found two potentially fraudulent websites with sponsored ads on Google that appeared above the official Delta website in search results.

Scams in which criminals alter the contact information of major companies are relatively common and have targeted a number of travel-based industries in recent years, including rental car companies and airlines, said Amy Nofziger, the director of fraud victim support at AARP.

Since Sunday, Evers said, other Twitter users have reached out to share stories of similar incidents. “There’s people that said, ‘This scam cost me hundreds of dollars and thousands of dollars,’” he said.

Here are the best ways to identify this type of scam and to prevent it from happening to you.

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Expert advice: Our By The Way Concierge solves readers’ dilemmas, including whether it’s okay to ditch a partner at security, or what happens if you get caught flying with weed. Submit your question here. Or you could look to the gurus: Lonely Planet and Rick Steves.

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